The VAG was founded in 1931 and had its first home at 1145 West Georgia Street. In 1983 it moved to the Hornby Street location, the former provincial courthouse. It was renovated at a cost of $20 million by architect Arthur Erickson, which completed his modern three city-block Robson Square complex. The Art Gallery occupies the northern block, and connects via an underground passage below Robson Street to an outdoor plaza, restaurants, the University of British Columbia's downtown satellite campus, government offices, and the new law courts at the southern end.
The VAG has 41,400 square feet (3,846 square metres) of exhibition space and over 9,000 works in its collection, most notably its Emily Carr collection. It has also amassed a significant collection of photographs. In addition to exhibitions of its own collection, the VAG regularly hosts touring exhibitions. The VAG regularly sponsors or hosts a number of public programmes and lectures.
In March 2007 the 2010 Olympic countdown clock was placed in the front lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It is open for free for the public to see.
The VAG is located in the former main courthouse for Vancouver. The original 165,000 square foot (15,329 square metre) neoclassical building was designed by Francis Rattenbury after winning a design competition in 1905. Rattenbury also designed the British Columbia Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel in Victoria.
The design includes ionic columns, a central dome, formal porticos, and ornate stonework. The building was constructed using marble imported from Alaska, Tennessee and Vermont. The new building was constructed in 1906 and replaced the previous courthouse located at Victory Square. At the time, the building contained 18 courtrooms.
An annex designed by Thomas Hooper was added to the western side of the building in 1912. The Annex Building is the only part of the VAG that was not converted to use as an art gallery. It was declared a heritage site and retains the original judges' benches and walls as they were when the building was a courthouse.
On the Georgia Street side of the building is the Centennial Fountain. This fountain was installed in 1966 to commemorate the centennial of the union of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia.
Both the main and annex portions of the building are municipally designated "A" heritage structures.
The steps on both the Robson Street and Georgia Street sides of the building are a popular gathering spot for protest rallies. The Georgia Street side is also a popular place in the summertime for people to relax or socialize.
To celebrate the Gallery's 75th anniversary, the Gallery has published an on-line catalogue that features 75 works from its collection.
The gallery planned to approach city council soon in early 2008 for official handover of the site. Construction would have begun after the 2010 Olympics with an opening tentatively scheduled for 2013. The gallery was expected to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the gallery hoped to secure funding from provincial and federal governments as well as private donors.
In May 2008, however, a different site was designated as the chosen site for the new gallery.
The VAG will move into a new building on land occupied until now by the Plaza of Nations in Vancouver near BC Place, and will double its size to . A call for designs for the new gallery will go out to architects in the fall of 2008. Construction is expected to start in 2011, with an opening likely in 2013.